Leading art libraries pull together to make research available on the web

Joint project to place 31.5 million images on a single website would “revolutionise” art history, says Frick Collection’s Inge Reist


More than 30 million images of paintings, drawings and sculptures could soon be available on one website if art history photo archives across the world agree to a joint digitisation project. Inge Reist, director of the Frick Collection’s Center for the History of Collecting, says it would “revolutionise” art history.

The International Digital Photo Archive Consortium includes the Frick Art Reference Library in New York, the National Gallery of Art library in Washington, DC, London’s Witt Library (the Courtauld Institute of Art), the Netherlands Institute for Art History in The Hague, the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art in Paris, the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome, the Bildarchiv Foto Marburg in Germany and seven other institutions.

Many of these archives still mount images of works with captions on thin card, filed by artist, in alphabetical order. Each artist work is subdivided by type—for example portraits, landscapes and still lifes. Most have not been digitised, so researchers have to visit the library in person.

The plan is to digitise the 31.5 million cards held by 14 of the world’s leading archives and then upload them on the web to make them easily searchable. No decisions have been made on what would be available free or for a charge. The images would be for research purposes, rather than reproduction.

Chris Stolwijk, director of the Netherlands Institute for Art History, says that it is “essential to go digital, otherwise we will be working for a only very small group of researchers”. His institute’s collection is the largest in the world, with 7 million images. Amassed since the 1930s, it is particularly strong in Netherlandish and Dutch Golden Age paintings.

Stolwijk estimates the costs of digitisation at roughly 15 euro cents a page. On this basis the cost of digitising the 1.5 million images would be around €3m: a modest sum, considering the benefits for art historians.

Since 2013 three international meetings to discuss the project have been held in New York, London and Florence/Bologna, but Reist stresses that the consortium project is still at the planning stage. Stolwijk says that his institute should be able to digitise its images in a year, once funding is in place.

Archives in the consortium

Bibliotheca Hertziana, Rome

Bildarchiv Foto Marburg, Germany

Frick Art Reference Library, New York

Fondazione Federico Zeri, Bologna

Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, Paris

Kunsthistorisches Institut, Florence

National Gallery of Art library, Washington, DC

Netherlands Institute for Art History, The Hague

Paul Mellon Centre, London

Villa I Tatti, Florence

Warburg Institute, London

Witt Library, Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut